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Qatar Air Identifies European Takeover Target, Al Baker Says

Jan. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Qatar Airways Ltd. is examining a potential acquisition in Europe, where it last year purchased a stake in freight operator Cargolux International SA, Chief Executive Officer Akbar Al Baker said today.

The Gulf region’s second-largest airline has “identified” a target or targets as it casts around for takeover prospects, Al Baker said in a briefing at the Bahrain Air Show.

“We need to look at every business opportunity we can get,” Al Baker said of prospects in Europe, while declining to specify who talks are being held with. “I just want to make sure Qatar Airways grows in a very sustained environment.”

Shares of Stockholm-based SAS Group, which said last week it wasn’t in talks about a takeover by Qatar Air, rose as much as 7.8 percent in the Swedish capital. Ireland’s Aer Lingus Group Plc, another state-backed European carrier linked with a Middle Eastern takeover, advanced 9.1 percent.

Qatar Air, the biggest Gulf airline after Dubai-based Emirates, last year purchased a 35 percent stake in Luxembourg-based Cargolux, Europe’s largest specialist freight operator, saying it aims to become a major player in the market by 2015.

‘Minority Stakes’

“The prospect of a cash infusion is something few airlines would dismiss out of hand in the current environment, though the legislation makes it difficult,” said Douglas McNeill, a transport analyst at Charles Stanley in London, referring to rules limiting non-European investments to 49 percent. “There’s a danger of collecting a great number of minority stakes.”

Such investments make most sense in markets like Germany, where Gulf carriers encounter obstacles to entry, McNeill said.

Closely held Qatar Air is also interested in investing in India, though overseas carriers currently face hurdles that make such a move impractical, Al Baker said at the Bahrain briefing.

“The climate for airlines to invest in India should be conducive to proper business processes,” he said. “We will not go to India just to be a partner -- we are going to help them become more profitable, to get further investment, further capital, but we also need a return. We’re a business entity.”

Any investment in India would also depend on the target carrier’s cost structure and organization, Al Baker said.

SAS, the Nordic region’s biggest airline, surged 17 percent on Jan. 10 after Norwegian newspaper Dagens Naeringsliv said Qatar Air was interested in a purchase. The carrier, part-owned by the governments of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, later rejected the report and the stock closed up 8.3 percent.

Spanair, TAP

SAS advanced 1.1 percent to 9.10 kroner as of the close today, valuing it at 2.99 billion kroner ($442 million).

Doha-based Qatar Air has also been linked with a bid for 49 percent of Spanair SA, the Barcelona-headquartered carrier controlled by the regional government of Catalonia. Expansion, citing people close to the airline, said Oct. 27 that a bid might consist of cash or planes to begin a long-haul service.

Qatar Air doesn’t want to buy Lisbon-based TAP SGPS SA, Al Baker said June 14 after Valor Economico reported he had told the Portuguese government he was interested in acquiring 49 percent of the state-controlled company. International Consolidated Airlines Group SA CEO Willie Walsh has said he’d like to invest in TAP if the company becomes available.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways said Dec. 19 that it had agreed to provide Air Berlin Plc with $350 million in equity financing and funds for planes while lifting its stake in the German discount carrier from 2.99 percent to 29.2 percent. The deal was approved this week, the Bonn-based Federal Cartel Office said in a statement on its website.

Iran Route

Ireland has no plans to sell its stake in Aer Lingus to Etihad, a spokesman said Jan. 6 after Transport Minister Leo Varadkar scheduled a meeting with the Gulf company’s CEO, James Hogan. Talks focused on “tourism matters,” the spokesman said.

Gulf News reported earlier that the meeting would include a discussion of Ireland’s 25 percent stake in Aer Lingus. The Dublin-based company closed up 6 cents at 72 cents today.

Al Baker said he isn’t familiar with, nor interested in, Etihad’s investment strategy.

The CEO said that Qatar Airways will continue with operations to Iran, even after an increase in tensions after the Islamic republic threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz if western nations block its crude oil sales.

“We want to serve the people of Iran and we will continue to go there,” he said. Qatar Air was due to last week add a fourth Iranian city, Isfahan, to the network, it said Oc. 31.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tamara Walid at the Bahrain Air Show via twalid@bloomberg.net; Steve Rothwell in London at srothwell@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chad Thomas at cthomas16@bloomberg.net

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